The trees were wearing their finest couture this week in eastern Pine County, Minnesota. The sugar maples were red and the birches were yellow, and the other trees were just about every shade possible, from orange to purple.
This was where the Upper and Lower Tamarack Rivers run through hardwood hills and wide wetlands before joining the St. Croix River. Other minor creeks also carry the tannin-stained water that looks so dark even under sunny skies.
There were few people around. The region is perhaps the lightest populated part of the watershed. One township, 36 square miles, boasts a population of just 88 residents. If it was a state, that would be put its population density between Alaska and Wyoming.
Gravel roads cut through the forests and cross the streams, and every so often, pickup trucks come along, usually carrying hunters. There are a few active farms raising some combination of hay, beef cattle, and corn. Most of the structures seemingly still occupied are the rustic hunting camps situated every several miles along most roads.
One night under starry skies, framed by tall trees, accompanied by the song of rushing water, the land seemed to posses a primeval power. There was not only the feeling of nature’s indifference, but human insignificance — the population of people here has already peaked, briefly booming during the days of railroads and pulpwood and fraudulent farmland, before falling to the few who call it home today.
The question of who would win a fight between humans and nature was settled a century ago, with wide woods the sign of the victor, and empty houses and falling down barns marking the defeated.
Another morning at dawn, a pair of trumpeter swans flew swiftly upriver, bugling softly in the low light. Later, a kingfisher plunged into the water and then flew to a nearby perch to dry in the rising sun. The roadsides reveal the migrating birds of the moment: dark-eyed juncos, northern flickers, and occasionally, a kestrel perched on an electrical wire. Blue jays screech and chickadees cheep.
The light was golden all day, glowing like an everlasting evening. When it hit leaves, the light was not so much blocked as the foliage was illuminated. Water flowed insistently down the creeks and rivers. As the nights get colder and the trees lose their leaves, it was fleeing before freezing.
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